Katie Michell (in the center of the photo, in a dark shirt and glasses) graduated from East in 1991. A long and winding road led her right back where she started, teaching English at the high school and running the East Vision newspaper that was started when she was a student. Weird, right? It gets weirder. One of her favorite teachers in high school? Mrs. Mitchell. That's like "Back to the Future" weird.
You can only have one: Rose’s caramel corn, an ice cream cone from Jersey Junction, or a Yesterdog. Which do you choose?
I love them all, but I’m most nostalgic for a flat top grilled olive burger from the old Rose’s. Back in the day, Rose’s was an old white-clad burger shop with formica tables and metal chairs. The screen doors slammed shut when you entered, and it reeked gloriously of burger grease and caramel corn.
What was your path from East Grand Rapids to where you are now in life?
Circuitous, but inevitable. I have said before I never wanted to live in East Grand Rapids. I never wanted to teach either, so the route back home was surprising. I graduated U of M in 1995 with a degree in English and Women’s Studies. I spent a year substitute teaching here, and then I moved out to Colorado.
I lived in Boulder and Breckenridge for three years. I worked at an inline skating magazine, the North Boulder YMCA, a small, now-defunct newspaper in Frisco called “The Ten Mile Times,” and Fatty’s Pizzeria in Breckenridge.
While building a house in Placer Valley near the Continental Divide with my then boyfriend, now husband Pete, I read and reread the book What Color is Your Parachute? The book’s quizzes indicated that I should be a teacher, but I ignored that, and instead looked to advertising and marketing.
I moved to Chicago in 1999 and Pete followed soon after. I got an administrative assistant job at an advertising agency in Chicago and worked one year -- at which time I realized that the advertising world was not for me; I relented to my teaching nature, and completed DePaul University’s Masters in Education program.
I loved it. I taught all over Chicago. I worked with kids of all abilities and backgrounds, from kids with emotional and behavioral disorders to kids in an IB program in the middle of the city. I was lucky enough to work for four years at Northside College Preparatory High School, a small public magnet school in Chicago. It was such a great school: block classes, excited learners and innovative educators, a colloquium course on Wednesday mornings.
When we had our first daughter, I wanted to have more space for her. My husband looked for jobs in Colorado, New York, Maine, and Grand Rapids. He got a great job with Rockford Construction, and I got a great part-time job in the English Department at East Grand Rapids High School, and in 2005 I returned to East.
I have loved my time back in East Grand Rapids. I love my colleagues, and the focus and care they give to their students and curricula. I love walking the lake with my dogs. I love going to Gaslight Village. I love watching my own kids learn in places that are both familiar to me and new. I love being close to my family. It’s been a trip.
What specific thing did you learn in East that has enabled you to be successful?
I graduated in 1991 with the smallest class ever: 130 students. So I really felt that sense of community that was both about the place “East” and the school system. The community has always had such a belief in its own success, and I think -- as naive or privileged as that may be -- it grounded me in a belief that I would be successful. I don’t always feel successful, but I know that I carry that vision of what could be.
What were you like in school?
I have no idea. I felt like we were all friends during high school. I was in honors classes. I played tennis. I did drama. I did Key Club. I was an active, typical girl, I think.
Did you have a favorite teacher or class?
I loved so many of my teachers from sweet Mrs. Gill in second grade to Mr. Frazier and Mr. Letherby in middle school to Mrs. Jones, Mr. Froysland and Mrs. Mitchell in high school.
If you had to choose one moment in one location to serve as the signature moment of your East school experience, what would it be?
I loved the old public green space we used to have on Bagley on the West side of the school. Kids would hang out and do homework outside the cafeteria. I have one golden memory of going out to lunch and then coming back for homecoming games dressed in Spirit Week pajama days wear. Someone sent me the picture recently, too. It encapsulated that moment. [That's Katie in the middle of the picture above, in the dark shirt and glasses.]
What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
I think I would have enjoyed my high school sports more if I knew that a) they didn’t really matter, so I should have had more fun, and b) it was a great opportunity to exercise, and c) competition is a lifelong activity, so I should embrace the opportunity to train my brain.
Do you stay in touch with many people from East Grand Rapids?
I see people who went to East Grand Rapids High School almost every day living and teaching in East. I have dear friends from the class of 1991 living all over the world and here. My friends from my high school days have done such cool things. They own companies, and run a lab or theater department, and raise great kids, and open personal fitness centers, and teach, and write screenplays, and consult major companies -- and more.
People always ask if it is weird working where I went to school. I don’t know how to answer that any more than my brothers know how to answer what it feels like to be twins. It just is. I grew up coming with my mom, Sheila Pantlind, to watch musical run-throughs in the 1970s in a little aud that smelled like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Double Bubble gum from The Trading Post. I spent hours up in Herr Parton’s room planning tennis weekends.
And now I spend weekends here working on The East Vision newspaper that Mrs. Ford started when I was in high school.
I have also met so many great friends who moved here for some of the same reasons I love being here now.
What advice do you have for young East alums who are just starting out?
You’ve got a support system here. We want you to go out, and we want you to ask us for help. We also look forward to having you come back and make some of the changes that we need to make, as well as support what we already have here. There is always work to be done. I love East -- and we still have work to do. Keep your eyes and ears open to where you can best use your talents. If it’s here, then great.
Who else would you like us to have a virtual cup of coffee with?
Pat Connor, Paul Lee, Diane Jackson, Mary Salhaney Tjoelker, Andy Shape, Jeff MacKeigan, Kerry Eleveld, Amy Aves Challenger, Mike Henry, Amy Stoimenoff Steers, Chris Nowak.
Bonus question: What are you glad we didn’t ask you about?
Honestly, I think the question on success scares me the most. You didn’t ask me how successful I am or why I’m successful. I’m glad. The best part about the narrative of East Grand Rapids and the Tradition of Excellence is that it raised my aspirations. The hard part is the pervasive questions alumni get about what we have done. Success is measured in many ways.